Sunday, March 11, 2018

Bracket Review

No doubt there's going to be some hand wringing over the inclusion of Syracuse and Arizona State, and the exclusion of (fill in your favorite bubble team here). Since taking Joe Lunardi's bracket class in 2014, I've come to believe that when it comes to bubble teams, there's rarely a cut-and-dried answer. Every bubble team has warts. So all the complaining, besides not really changing anything, is also just a cry to get everyone to think that their team's warts are less damning than the ones of those who actually got into the tournament.

Honestly, though, the inclusion of Syracuse baffled me (and I am a fan). I gave up on them after the BC loss, figuring that a team that lost to all the teams below them in the standings (except, of course, hapless Pitt) didn't deserve serious consideration. I had USC in instead. What surprised me more was the admission by the committee chair that Notre Dame was the team excluded by Davidson's run to the A-10 title. But I really shouldn't have been surprised at all, by any of this. Every team on the bubble had a claim to fame (and a separate claim to infamy). I'm going to look at the committee's last four in (St. Bonaventure, UCLA, Arizona State and Syracuse) and first four out (Notre Dame, Baylor, St. Mary's and USC) and try to figure out why they went the way they did.

I thought St. Bonaventure worthy of about a 10 seed. I figured they'd get penalized for not making their conference final, but I didn't think they'd fall into a play-in. With 25 wins, they have the second most in this group of 8. But some things stick out in their numbers. Their strength of record (which I personally think is one of the better metrics to use) ranking is much higher than anyone else on the list. And their RPI, which the committee has always made serious use of, is by far the best. This overcame their having the group's lowest BPI and second worst SOS, and also overcame the semifinal loss to the Wildcats. They were also 9-3 against Quadrants 1 and 2, though their best win was at home against Rhode Island. We can't ignore three Q-3/4 losses, including a really bad one to Niagara, which is probably why they were put in the PiG.

UCLA is another team that I figured was more safely into the field. With wins over Arizona and Kentucky, and just one Q3 loss, you'd think this team would've been on solid ground. Their 8-10 record vs Q-1/2 is decent, as is their RPI of 37. Their SOR of 54 is solidly in the middle of this group. The more I look at this, the less I understand their placement. 

Not to oversimplify, but I think Arizona State is in because, straight up, they beat two 1-seeds back in November and December - one at a neutral site, and one at the Phog. Without those, they have a pedestrian argument. Their RPI is the worst of the four that got in, and despite those two wins, their SOR is by far the lowest of these 8. I think the committee saw Xavier-N and Kansas-A both in green and that was that. They were my own last team in, so I get that line of thinking. Other than maybe Oklahoma State (who falls outside this study) no bubble team can claim wins of that stature.

I believe that Syracuse was carried by the rising tide that lifted all the ACC boats. The Clemson win was almost certainly critical here. It was probably the fourth best win among this group (after X, KU and Arizona). Beating Miami on the road was also important. But I don't see how that overcame the losses to Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and BC, all behind them in the ACC standings. And every other top team they played (with the exception of the home loss to UNC) blew them out. Still, 7-11 against Q-1/2 is on par with the teams that got in, and a 41 RPI is well within reason to get a bubble team in.

If I'm an Irish fan, I'm mad that a team we beat - at their house - edged us out. BPI would agree, as Notre Dame is well ahead of the Orange. SOS would also agree. And while RPI decidedly DISagrees, that's not supposed to be the "favored" metric (right?). And to complete the argument, Wichita State as a best win (on a neutral court) seems to be a slightly better win than Clemson (at home). On the other hand, if I'm an Orange fan, I'm pointing out the Ball State and Indiana losses. I'm pointing out two fewer Q-1 wins. With the two teams being this closely matched, could the committee have leaned on the big RPI disparity? That seems to be the biggest thing in Syracuse's favor. I'm not sayin' it's right (I love my Orange but I did not think they were getting in), just that that's the only thing I'm seeing in SU's favor.

I'm almost always pulling for the committee to show some love to mid-majors (for lack of a better term). But this year I can't support St. Mary's despite that gaudy 28-5 record. It's the SOS. Among these 8 teams, theirs is the only one lower than the 80s. The RPI was solid, the BPI made them look like a seriously dangerous team, but when your best win after Gonzaga is BYU, and those are your only Q-1 games, the committee is not going to give you a bid. St. Mary's has earned tournament bids before, and they make the WCC a threat to be a multi-bid conference most years. This year I'm not sure they could've done much more. Essentially, the committee is telling a team like St. Mary's that they needed to go 31-3 with two losses to Gonzaga and one more to Georgia in order to get an at-large. That's a tall order at any level.

Now we're to the team I had in, USC. And as I review their team sheet and numbers again (without the deadline hanging over my head!), I begin to see some stuff I should have considered more strongly. First, their RPI among this group is second best. But their SOR is second worst. Their SOS and BPI are essentially the same as the Sun Devils', which was barely good enough for me to put them in. So does USC have wins comparable to X and the Jayhawks? Not even close. Their Q-1/2 record is better than A-State's, but their best win was Middle Tennessee State (another mid-major that I'm disappointed but  not surprised ended up missing out). They lost head to head vs the Sun Devils. And no team on this list has a loss quite as bad as the home loss to Princeton. My only consolation is that most of the Bracket Matrix agreed that USC should be in, but looking at it now, it was right to leave them out, and this very amateur bracketologist just learned something.

The last team I'll look at is Baylor, a team that beat Kansas and Texas Tech and Creighton (N) and swept Texas (who both the committee and I put in the field). A team that has by far the best SOS of this group. Their RPI was a little light for an at-large, but their BPI and SOR were strong enough as was the quality of those wins which more than counterbalance a loss to Iowa State. I think with Baylor the Committee penalized them just enough for a really weak nonconference schedule. Their Q-1/2 record was 7-13, so they played a LOT of those games, but they just didn't win enough of them. 

So to sum up:
1. Bona deserved their bid, but I may have over-seeded them at 10.
2. I still think UCLA was under-seeded by the Committee.
3. Arizona State is darn lucky they won both those games against the Musketeers and Jayhawks.
4. Since Syracuse and USC were the only teams I whiffed on, in hindsight I think Syracuse clearly deserved a bid over USC (though the play-in was the right spot for them). 
5. ND vs SU is a coin toss and I think the RPI seems to be the deciding factor, fairly or unfairly.
6. St. Mary's had a nearly impossible task with the schedule they had.
7. USC lulled me to sleep by making the Pac 12 final.
8. Baylor may have deserved a little better with the quality of some of their wins, but didn't have enough of them to overcome Syracuse.

I'd really enjoy comments, feedback and constructive criticism.

**BPI, SOS, SOR and RPI are courtesy of's Power Index. Other data is from the NCAA Committee's Team Sheets.

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